Media : Just like ‘Home’

Helmed by Altman and penned by Keillor, Companion shows telltale signs of both

Robert Altman, that old lion who was so much more gracious than he needed to be when the Academy gave him their “sorry we didn’t do this sooner” lifetime achievement award a few months ago, is no stranger to unfashionable modes of music. He made a musical of Popeye, for Pete’s sake — in addition to an opera short (in Aria), a portrait of a ballet Company, and Kansas City, a love song to a vanished era of jazz. (He also, of course, made the more topical Nashville.)

The Keillor-ettes? Lily Tomlin, Meryl Streep, and Lindsay Lohan join Robert Altman’s latest casting constellation in A Prairie Home Companion.

And since he has included some straight-up adaptations (The Gingerbread Man) among his more skewed ones (The Long Goodbye), it really isn’t all that surprising that he’d be interested in Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion. A little weird, but what’s too far-out for Altman? The only really strange thing would be for him to do it Jonathan Demme-style, and simply capture a live performance for posterity’s sake.

No danger of that. Instead, the filmmaker who invented his own brand of cinematic chaos finds the harried undercurrents beneath the famously calm surface of Lake Wobegon’s favorite variety show. Keillor may have penned the script, but it’s hard to believe the director wasn’t helping to shape it as he wrote.

The plot is there just to give everything else something to hang onto: WLT, the radio station where Companion has run lo these many decades, has been sold to a Texas megacorp; rumor has it that the company intends to cancel the program, raze the Fitzgerald theater, and make a parking lot. (The company is represented, perfectly, by sentiment-free axman Tommy Lee Jones.) Tonight’s show, stagehands and performers fear, will be the last.

But if impending doom lends an air of mortality to things and provides for some unusual visitors, it’s also just another topic for backstage chatter. As we quickly understand, the cast and crew of Companion (most of whom are fictionalized here, although the show’s real-life regulars pop up as well) need little excuse to wag their tongues. Talk is everything here, whether it’s the host’s ever-changing account of “how I got into radio” (the settings change, but it usually involves a guy with his pants hanging down around his ankles) or the effortless zingers lobbed between Dusty and Lefty, the ersatz cowpokes played by John C. Reilly and Woody Harrelson.

Which isn’t to say Keillor doesn’t offer subplots to move the dialogue along. The most engaging drama is between Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep, as singing sisters with all sorts of history between them. In one classic Altman moment, they dive into family lore at the same time, each telling her version of an event without waiting for the other to pause.

The biggest subplot, involving Kevin Kline’s Guy Noir and a mysterious blonde, is best left for the viewer to decode — but it’s a nice way of tying this happy jumble together, keeping humor and homegrown metaphysics as closely linked as Garrison Keillor always knew they should be.

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